part and parsing

Don’t Call Lena Dunham ‘Brave’

Photo: Jessica Miglio /HBO

Girls creator and star Lena Dunham is debatably the most significant figure currently working in television (itself a medium that is rapidly overtaking film in social relevance), as well as 26 years old, female, and famously inclined to take off her clothes on-camera despite having a frankly fairly normal body type. In Hollywood, where gender politics are stuck somewhere in the mid-twentieth century, like pretty much every other major industry, it is as uncommon for a young woman to occupy positions of power as it is for people who are not super skinny to get naked. This week’s episode of Girls, with its explicit depiction of her character Hannah’s sexual fling with Patrick Wilson, an older man who has invited comparisons to a Ken doll, sparked a vitriolic social-media and critical debate over whether their coupling was believable; in defending her, the pro-Dunham side often used a nonsense superlative that is nearly always reflexively applied when her supporters describe her frequent nudity: brave.


Lena Dunham is not a rape victim, she is a writer-actor-director who is exceptionally well compensated both financially and in the artist’s capital of choice — attention — for exploiting her body as an artistic commodity. This is wholly deserved: Dunham is one of the medium’s most gifted artists working at her full potential. However, calling this brave as opposed to a calculated risk — the ideal impact of which is the exact debate that it has caused — is paternalistic, condescending, and intellectually dishonest. Writers are narcissists: They presume that their personal obsessions and neuroses are of deep fascination — or even beneficial — to potentially millions of people. Actors are narcissists: Outside of a musical, there is no breed of human more likely to break into public song. This is not a negative. Narcissism is as essential to the artist’s temperament as competition to the athlete’s; without it driving most of your waking hours, you are, at best, a precocious hobbyist. No one dragged Lena Dunham in front of the camera. As a producer, I will confidently state that no one was ever cast in a major television show against their will regardless of how much people wanted to see their tits. The point is that Lena Dunham the performer is subject to the material provided her by Lena Dunham the writer – both of whom I’m willing to bet enjoyed leaving the Golden Globes with an armload of statues. And her show in the first place is a kind of dramatically reenacted LiveJournal; she has admitted to keeping a record of incidents that occur in her own life to be mined potentially, if it weren’t obvious enough already. As she should. Oversharing is the artist’s job, and the applause they receive for doing so is what, pre-success, fuels them to connect with audiences. The Salinger road is available to all, and even he only took it after ensuring everyone would be talking about it.

It is not the dictionary definition of “brave” that is so objectionable, but rather the fact that its connotation through current usage in the news media has made it a treacly Tupperware fart of a word that calls to mind an initial condition of contrived weakness and sympathy, such as overcoming a stutter. And often Dunham depicts herself as a sort of underdog who has succeeded in spite of her eccentricities and hyperactive neuroses (which in actuality fails to distinguish her from the entire upper echelon of Hollywood); her public persona, humble and little-old-me-ish, is not unlike Tina Fey’s, whom Dunham humbly and little-old-me-ishly thanked at the Globes for helping her get through middle school — this after beating Fey for Best Actress. Anything said into a microphone is an act of marketing that bears as much or little resemblance to reality as benefits the message. This is not to necessarily call this public persona a falsehood, but a selective truthhood; projecting the facets of your personality that are charmingly self-effacing is effective strategy, but the emphasis here is on facets. Lena Dunham is not weak. Lena Dunham will cut your throat in your sleep. In addition to cultivating (a) a unique and resonant voice as a writer, and (b) the political skills necessary to manage a set as director (both accomplishments, irrespective of age or gender), she has made a series of uncannily shrewd business decisions that have made her a star and the de facto mouthpiece of the hipster gestalt. And her remarkable pan-demographic appeal is also worth noting; I know a number of men — and count myself among them — who consider her stronger at writing for male characters (authorial intent perhaps subject to debate in one’s surpassing desire to see Jessa pushed in front of the G train).

Moving to the subject of her haters, in the diluvian backlash against Dunham’s prosperity/right to exist — which resembles nothing more than a hysterical mass colonic of misogyny — there is one argument that deserves a moment’s consideration: Dunham’s background of privilege. To this I would counter (a) I’m confident that an informal poll of film and television professionals would yield nearly complete ignorance of her artist parents or their work (I will raise my own hand as one of them), and (b) let me refer you to the untold thousands of similarly advantaged progeny whose film/television/book deal has yet to materialize because they didn’t work as hard. Crying nepotism is roughly as productive as protesting the rotation of the earth, and to be honest, in an industry as merciless, competitive, and surprisingly meritocratic as entertainment, anyone who is resistant to capitalizing on whatever advantages they possess going in is a fool of the first rank. Market success, let alone your artistic legacy, are not determined by how much your own life happens to resemble a Horatio Alger story. Not to mention it’s a minor miracle in the first place an Oberlin graduate from the New York art scene has made something watchable.

So I don’t believe “brave” is misapplied based on the social prestige of her upbringing, nor another case I have heard made within industry circles: that she has only reached her current position through the patronage of Judd Apatow. Not only is this not an accusation you hear leveled at any number of Apatow’s male protégés, it suggests a willful misunderstanding of the Hollywood apparatus. When Dunham was perceived as a hot commodity coming off of Tiny Furniture, she would necessarily have been flooded with professional opportunity, including, presumably, bigger and safer bets from major movie studios. HBO was a far greater risk than she is being given credit for; as the most respected brand in premium television they are both notoriously overbought — last I heard, they had something like 40 projects in development — and fickle: see The Corrections and an elephant’s graveyard of shows with A-list talent that never made it past the pilot stage. So of all potential choices given, Dunham made the most interesting one that best aligned with her talents, and it paid off.

The film The Departed opens with Jack Nicholson saying, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me.” Dunham has achieved this and deserves proper respect for it. Is she “brave” for casting her smart, attractive Brooklyn friends in a showcase of how poignant and interesting her Brooklyn coming-of-age was? Like any successful art, this could be more accurately described as unusually lucrative therapy. Is she “brave” for her physical immodesty? She herself publicly vacillates between saying she is “not stressed” about nudity to calling it a “compulsion”; not having a dog in the fight, I would simply call it opportunistic, in the same way that all art is a product of shameless opportunism that deserves to be applauded. The word I would submit as a replacement is baller; this is a woman who has risen through a masculine power hierarchy to become one of the most important culture-makers of the 21st century without compromising her artistic identity, and is fucking a rock star, this is more or less as baller as it gets. In the end this is, of course, a semantics argument. But in the end, so is life.

As to the diversity question, the heterogeneity of the young creative class is certainly a worthy social problem, but not one that will be solved by making a show about Greenpoint hipsters who more closely resemble the cover of a seventh-grade health book.

Brian McGreevy is the author of Hemlock Grove, as well as executive producer of the forthcoming Netflix original series of the same name.

Don’t Call Lena Dunham ‘Brave’